I wasn’t walking. I was gliding, each step propelling me on to the next. Life was perfect along the Seine in Paris, far from the daily grind of academic life in Boston or the serene boredom of home in Connecticut. I was a solo intrepid traveler, face upturned to the afternoon sun, waiting for my next croissant or wine break.
Until he tapped me on the shoulder. The man was a little older than I was and definitely bigger. I turned to face him and took three quick steps back. I was still in a daze when he asked me, in a thick French accent, if I had a moment to chat. Glancing around anxiously, I put my hand on my purse and scanned the pathway for somebody, anybody, who could serve as a witness.
“I don’t have a gun,” he said, holding his hands up in surrender. “You don’t have to be scared.”
It wasn’t until he turned the typical French charm on, told me he noticed me because I was very beautiful, and asked if I wanted to get drinks that I realized he was a harmless flirt. But my first reaction was fear.
When I booked plane tickets to travel to Europe alone this past summer, I imagined my trip wouldn’t stray all that far from the plot of “Eat Pray Love,” a movie in which a very blond Julia Roberts fixes all the problems in her life by embarking on a trip across Italy, India, and Indonesia. While my trip was one of the more delicious experiences I’ve had, I found the realities of traveling alone as a young woman are a little more complicated.
Solo travel goes against all the lessons I was taught as a child: Stick with your friends, don’t walk alone late at night, don’t talk to strangers. When I told my mom I would be traveling mostly alone through Europe for two weeks, she e-mailed me a New York Times article highlighting the dangers of solo female travel. During multiple dinners, my dad warned me against being pulled into a sex trafficking scam while abroad. He reminded me of the pepper spray he had bought for me when I moved from Connecticut to Boston for college.
Staring at the numbers in my bank account the night before I left, I knew I would have to find inexpensive strategies for reconciling the adventure I dreamed of with the reality of staying safe. Here’s how I did it.
Take advantage of travel technology.
I did not fall in love at first sight with France’s capital city. Stepping out of Paris’s Gare du Nord train station, I was greeted with intense heat and bright sun. The air smelled stale, like it had been working its way through the city’s maze of narrow streets for years. There wasn’t a single macaron or croissant in sight.
I had been saving money by avoiding cabs so far in my journey, but the thought of lugging my suitcase 40 minutes in the heat through unfamiliar neighborhoods sent my fingers flicking through my phone for the Uber app. Luckily, Paris has Uber (not all European cities do), and I hopped into an air-conditioned car four minutes later.
Uber and Airbnb have completely changed the rules when it comes to traveling alone. There’s this mutual trust that has to occur: You hope your driver or host won’t harm you, and your driver or host crosses their fingers that you won’t trash their car or home. While there have been some horror stories of Ubers gone wrong, I like to take advantage of the symbiotic relationship to get the perspective of a local.
As my Parisian driver wound through the chaotic neighborhoods of the 18th arrondissement, he explained, with a little prompting, where I should and shouldn’t walk alone. He told me where to get the best Indian food, that he planned on moving to Australia one day, and that, while Paris was a gorgeous travel destination, all the locals think about are taking the Metro, working, and sleeping.
As I stepped out of the car at the end of my ride, I was glad I hadn’t solely relied on researching Paris safety online (although you should do that, too). Asking locals for advice is an important — and free — way to discover the rules of a new city.
Schedule transportation during the day.
By the time I left Paris five days later, my initial opinion of the city had been turned on its head. I had sat alone in sidewalk cafes, lost in thought while I unabashedly people-watched and sipped cappuccinos. I had climbed to the top of the Arc de Triomphe, accompanied only by the sound of my own breathing, to be welcomed at the top by a glorious view of the Eiffel Tower and Paris’s massive urban sprawl. And I had discovered the Seine, which I am convinced is the most romantic place on Earth, even though I was alone.
It was only the night before my flight from Paris to Rome that I realized I had made a big mistake. In an attempt to save money, I had picked the cheapest flight, which took off at 6:55 a.m. What I hadn’t realized, however, is that I was going to have to find a way to the airport (which is about 30 minutes away by car) at 3:30 a.m. My chest tightened as I realized my options were limited. I could try and navigate the streets of Paris and the nocturnal public transportation, despite the advice locals had given me about not riding the Metro alone late at night. Or I could shell out $47 for an Uber to the airport.
I ended up choosing the latter, but I learned my lesson. It’s worth paying a little extra money upfront for transportation you can easily and safely get to on time.
Weigh your accommodation options wisely.
I couldn’t help but let out a laugh as I entered my Amsterdam hostel, the Flying Pig Uptown. It was a utopia for young solo travelers. The lobby was a bar by night and a café during the day, complete with drinking game rentals and an adjacent smoking room. The bartender doubled as the receptionist, greeting me with a squinty smile and telling me to enjoy my stay, “dude.”
I stayed at a medley of Airbnbs and hostels during my time in Europe, quickly realizing they were both good options, depending on your priorities. Airbnbs are better if you want your own space and can find one that is cheaper in a nicer area. I always felt more comfortable staying in not-as-nice rooms in safer neighborhoods. I’d rather have a few run-down amenities than wonder if I can safely walk around outside. When staying in Airbnbs, however, my golden rules include choosing a home with lots of good reviews and ensuring your bedroom door has its own lock that you can control.
Hostels are better for socializing, if that’s your thing. Staying in one that has a built-in bar means that you don’t have to worry about having some drinks, meeting new people, and then finding your way home alone after. Plus, drinks are often cheaper at the hostel bar! While I didn’t mind staying in mixed dorms, many hostels offer all-female rooms for a slightly higher fee.
Enjoy the moments you’ve created.
By the time I made my way to Reykjavik, I was exhausted and sick of wearing the same four outfits I had packed. I had a 24-hour layover in Iceland and was ready to head home the next day, but I was also the most content I had ever been. I felt purposeful and independent.
On that last night in Reykjavik, I decided to take a break from the grocery-store meals that made up much of my diet. I wandered into a dim restaurant lit only by candles and filled with moon-eyed couples. Sitting alone in a sea of pairs, I felt an immense wave of love for myself. I ordered absurdly expensive Icelandic lamb stew, a cherry beer, and a piece of chocolate cake for dessert.
The beer came out about three times larger than I expected, and I had to use both hands to bring the rim of the glass to my mouth. By the time I finished dessert, I had only finished half the drink, but was already starting to feel it in my head.
I paid the bill and left the unfinished beer on the table, a final decision to ensure I would have my wits about me and remain safe as I found my way to my hostel. The sun was finally setting over Reykjavik, and the colorful sky blended into the northern reaches of the sea. Stepping out of the restaurant, I knew I had reached the ends of the earth, all on my own. And I had no plans of stopping there.
Ysabelle Kempe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.